Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Summing Up South African Coal Struggle

First Published: Forward to the Party! Struggle for the Party!, No. 1, [n.d.].
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In reviewing the work of communists, particularly comrades of our organization, in the campaign that began last spring to stop South African coal imports, some lessons about the nature of work with trade unions–particularly so-called “progressive” unions–stand out.

It is important to sum these lessons up at this time, on the one hand because if we are to move forward to the new party and a new period of work among the masses, we must consciously sum up our mass work in the light of developing a correct political and ideological line for the programme and the party; and secondly, because the work of this campaign is not over and other so-called “communist” forces, the October League in particular, are still chewing on the erroneous “progressive unionism” line and may try in the future to spit this rubbish out on the mass movement.

A fundamental error underlying the work we did in the campaign until recently, was in our political line towards the issue. In the beginning we basically accepted the essentially protectionist line that the United Mine Workers (UMW) officials put out under the thin veil of some squawkish protests about “slave-like” conditions in South African mines.

On April 22, 1974, a UMW memorandum concerning the coal was written by Tom Bethell in Washington, D.C. to Arnold Miller and other international officers. To quote from this memorandum: “Arrangements are currently being made to bring substantial quantities of low-sulfur steam coal into the United States from the Republic of South Africa. This move on the part of the coal and utilities industries requires a strong response on the part of the UMWA, because it takes jobs away from American miners and because coal is produced in South Africa under conditions very close to slave labor.” (emphasis ours)

The memorandum then outlined the specific plans of the utilities companies for the coal import contracts, discussed the situation of the South African coal industry and the “labor situation in South Africa,” and ended up with this statement: “It is clear, however, that the U.S. coal and utility industries are already giving aid and comfort to a country whose policies are a slap in the face of both democracy in general and the trade union movement in particular.”

The memorandum called on the UMW to “join with other organizations concerned with South Africa including the British Trade Union Congress...as well as American church and union groups...” to “warn Con-sol and other U.S. companies involved in South Africa that such involvement is at odds with their professed commitment to the development of our domestic coal industry and must be seen as evidence of gross bad faith on their part.” (emphasis ours)

Protectionist Stance

From the beginning the UMW tied the issue of the coal imports to a protectionist stance toward their members’ jobs, saying that it would cost 400 miners their jobs. (This was a mathematical computation of how many miners it would take to dig an equivalent amount of coal to that which is being imported over the three year contract period.) They even chided the American imperialists for their “bad faith” towards the American workers in taking away U.S. jobs. “After all,” they would say, “aren’t we all ’Americans?’”

According to the memorandum, there is supposedly a direct cause-and-effect relationship between these coal imports and the loss of miners’ jobs. The memo’s statement about U.S. corporations’ “professed commitment to the development of our domestic coal industry” exposes the UMW officials’ view that there is essential harmony between the interests of the U.S. monopoly capitalists and the U.S. workers–if the U.S. capitalists would only “be fair.” In essence, the UMW officials were as much as saying to the imperialists:

Sure guys, we can understand your wanting to do a little exploiting and oppressing. That’s cool. But this slavery thing in South Africa is just a little too bitter for our social-democratic taste buds. Besides, you’re not giving American workers their ’fair share’ of the exploitation!

To take up the line that the coal imports from South Africa rob miners of their jobs dovetails with this view. No matter how fancy or elaborate the anti-imperialist window-dressing it is given, nor how sincerely “anti-imperialist” you may mean to be, picking up these UMW droppings puts you in the bourgeoisie’s camp.

It comes down to an essentially Kautskyite view of the imperialist system–that the imperialists can pick and choose according to free will, who and where they will go to exploit and oppress. It does not view, nor attempt to expose for the masses to understand, the economic laws that drive the system–the same laws that will inevitably drive it to its final doom.

The UMW memorandum is blatant: it calls on the imperialists to show “good faith” towards American workers and come home to do their exploiting. The line that we raised early in the campaign, that “The strength of the United Mine Workers is threatened by the purchase of coal from a country which operates a highly exploitative economic system...” which we covered with the view that “It is clear that the Southern Company is part of a system of imperialism which oppresses both South African and American workers,” can essentially be reduced to the same thing.

In preparation for the February conference to organize the coal campaign, the October League raised the line that the coal imports represent “an attack on the moves for democracy and organizing efforts of the UMW.” At the conference itself, the OL raised the slogan “Southern Co. scabs on U.S. and South African miners,” saying that the coal ̴opens up a potential source of scab coal to weaken any strike action of the mine workers.” It is clear that the OL had learned nothing at that point, from mistakes which we had already made and begun to sum up.

Open to Wrong Line

When we took up this line last spring, we left ourselves open to the totally reactionary protectionist line that the UMW concealed beneath the surface of their “progressive” stance on the coal imports. That summer a ship loaded with what turned out to be Australian coal came into the port of Mobile. The UMW sent a small band of officials down to the docks to set up a “picket line.” They came out in the open with their junk when the action of dockworkers who crossed the picket line and went to work unloading the Australian ship scratched the surface of their meager “progressivism.”

They stated that there was, in their view, “no difference” between South African and Australian coal because it was “all foreign.” While the UMW officials were at least consistent in their views towards “protecting miners’ jobs,” we couldn’t be if we wanted to maintain any kind of a revolutionary stand.

When the officials came out of their bag we said, “damn them!” But we ourselves were caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we had taken up their “protectionist” line when it seemed to be generally in a progressive framework. On the other hand, when they finally did come out in the open with a “Buy America” line, we knew it stank.

It was this hang-up between the “rock and the hard place” that finally drove us to re-analyze the issue of the coal imports, to critically think out the affect of the imports on the miners’ jobs and the American working class generally, and to do some study of political economy in making our analysis of the functioning of imperialism in this issue. It was also at that time that we began to consciously try to sum up our mass work in the light of the period-trying to bring to an end the old period, and through the bridge of the new Party, make a leap to a new period in both the mass and communist movements.

In all of the investigation and study that we were able to do we could find no evidence that the importation of coal at this time is costing significantly the jobs of miners in the U.S. In fact, there have been some recent indications that there is some increased employment among miners. In Alabama, for example, while most industries were laying off and shutting down or slowing down production in December and the first part of this year, the mines were hiring.

As far as we can tell, all coal is coal and what South African coal does or doesn’t do to miners’ jobs will be the same for other imported coal. In the proposal of the Birmingham group to the February 21st South African coal conference we said: “The attacks coming down on people at home cannot be separated from the attacks that come down on the oppressed nations and peoples of the world because imperialism is not a ’policy’ preferred by the ruling class. The manifestations of imperialism–the economic and political attacks it brings down, the wars it initiates, the crises and depressions it brings–are the result of the economic laws that drive the system. Faced with the rising costs of production at home which depresses the rate of surplus value, the Southern Company, like the other monopoly capitalists, has turned to the cheaper raw materials and labor costs in the oppressed nations–in this case South Africa...But the overall affect is to further intensify the crisis of the entire imperialist system...The imperialist solution turns into its opposite, paving the way for even more extensive and destructive crises and leading to depression with its all-sided and unsparing attacks on the masses of people, both of the oppressor and oppressed nations. To bring an end to the oppression and exploitation that both suffer we must clearly identify the common enemy–the imperialist system–and must build our revolutionary unity, consciousness and struggle to bring down imperialism the world over.”

And we also said, “The importation of this coal is linked to increased attacks coming down on the working class and other oppressed people in the U.S. But there is no direct cause and effect relationship between South African coal and 400 miners’ jobs. The main thing this importation of coal represents is an increased attack on and exploitation of the third world nations–specifically of Azania.”

Not Relying on Masses

In effect, we had been taken in by the progressive posture that the UMW officials seemed to have taken toward the issue of South African coal. This boils down to being impressed by the fact that instead of taking an openly reactionary “Buy America” line, they covered it with some nice phrases about how terrible things are for Black South African miners. In any case, our job was not to unite with the progressive posture of the UMW officials, but with the progressive and revolutionary sentiments of the masses of rank and file miners and other working people about this issue of South African coal, and on this basis, build mass struggle around the issue.

In the December 1974 issue of Revolution, in a sum-up of the coal campaign and its main weaknesses and strengths, we said, “...the Coalition didn’t see itself as really rooting itself in the masses of working people and using its political education campaign to mobilize people around an anti-imperialist analysis and program of struggle on a protracted basis. Its lack of a plan and spontaneous style of work demoralized some people...Tactically, the Coalition did not fully use the method of ’relying on the masses’ in its attempts to spread propaganda and agitation...For example, going to labor union officials to ask to speak at union meetings should only be one of the ways we reach the working class because only a small number of workers attend these meetings.”

What the article says is true: we didn’t see ourselves as really rooting ourselves among the masses and building a program of struggle on a protracted basis, but basically developed a variety of get-rich-quick scheme tactics, going from this official to that, and so on.

The thing that all these tactics have in common is trying to build a struggle from the top-down: the view that if we could just find some liberals or progressives to unite with us (the “communists”), then we could get support from the masses, too, based on this top-down “cooperation.” Instead, we should see that the struggle has to be built by going deeply among the masses with political issues and building mass revolutionary struggle. In fact, it is up to us to go to the masses and unite with them in building the struggle-not for us to seek out so-called “progressive” forces who only seek to pimp off the masses’ struggles anyway.

We communists have a duty to analyze the issues before the masses from our own independent Marxist-Leninist perspective. This includes analyzing some so-called “facts” presented by forces such as the UMW officials. We basically swallowed hook, line and sinker the view that the coal would affect miners’ jobs. This shows that we weren’t thinking critically about the way that imperialism functions in the real world–and not just in our minds during study classes.

Single Spark Method

One of the methods we should have taken up more deeply, which would have helped steer us away from the path of relying on union officials and the union apparatus, is the “single spark method.” As the Draft Programme says:

The answer (to dealing with the ’two-headed’ monster in the daily battles of the working class) lies in pitting the workers’ strength against the enemy’s weakness...The method of the proletariat and its party is to mobilize the masses of workers to take matters into their own hands and wage a blow for blow struggle against the enemy, inside and outside the unions. To seize on every spark of struggle, fan and spread it as broadly as possible throughout the working class and among its allies. To build every possible struggle and build off of it to launch new struggles. And through the course of this to fan every spark of consciousness, to identify and isolate the bourgeoisie and its agents, and unite all struggles against the enemy.

Across the country comrades and others in many places took this method up around the issue of the coal. For example, the workers’ papers like Turning Point in other cities spread the story of the struggle against the coal, popularized the example of the large and militant demonstration of white and Black miners that took place on May 22, and in that sense tried to “fan the flames” and build off of the struggle that had developed in Birmingham.

We ourselves did this in writing up and distributing thousands and thousands of copies of a special supplement to Turning Point that popularized the issue and the struggle that had gone on that far.

But we failed to take the issue deeply to the masses, essentially in the one-to-one contacts that comrades and others had among the masses on the job and elsewhere. We failed to develop the organizational forms of working class struggle that could independently (of union officials, etc.) build mass revolutionary consciousness and action around the issue.

The initial mistake in political line–around the question of protectionism–reinforced this other error. Both because we took up the stand that the miners’ jobs were being attacked, and because we fell into some pragmatism about the fact that miners were in motion around the issue, we failed to grasp how our role was to broaden the struggle and make it a question before the working class as a whole.

If we had taken the issue to the workers in the plants, if we had developed the unity, consciousness and struggle of the working class where we already had some base, we would have been in a much better framework from which to relate to the rank and file miners at the point when it became necessary to expose the UMW bureaucrats’ thoroughly reactionary outlook.

In the beginning it was generally correct to take the issue to UMW officials as one way to try tactically to get to the rank and file miners. (Our organization is still small and somewhat primitive in this area and there are close to 7,000 miners in North Alabama, scattered in over a hundred mines across many counties. There were certain objective limitations as to how we could reach the rank and file.)

But instead of using the method of going to the officials on the one hand, as a tactic, and on the other, striving to develop our own independent activity among both the rank and file miners and other workers, and overcome objective difficulties in doing this (as our strategy for building the struggle), we pretty much left it where it was. In the future, we tended to restrict our views as to “how to reach mainly miners” and continued to relate to the miners mainly through the union officials.

OL Position

This expresses a view, which in its extreme is put forward by the October League in their first proposal to the South African coal conference in February. In it they stated: “What should our policy be towards trade unions and trade union officials? This is important because working through trade unions and with various union officials increases our ability to reach and involve workers. This is so because large segments of the organized workers, especially the less advanced elements, are more receptive to political issues and campaigns when they ’officially’ come through their unions.”...and “Therefore, we should approach union and union officials with a genuine desire to unite around the issue of opposition to S.A. coal imports. The conditions for cooperation between our committee and them should be 1) opposition to S.A. coal imports and 2) this opposition cannot be based on a jingoist, anti-foreign and reactionary viewpoint that says all ’foreign products’ should be opposed. Within this unity, we should struggle over the tactics, literature, etc., of the campaign, but we should be willing to make compromises which do not harm the fundamental interests of the campaign.”

This view takes the tactical consideration of going to and through the union officials on issues and makes it a strategic question. There is no question that going through the union officials may “increase our ability to reach and involve workers.” But the point is: it may, or it may not. The October League not only chose here to ignore the fact that with respect to the UMW officials, these toads had already come out in the open with jingoist, anti-foreign and reactionary views. They chose to ignore the openly sabotaging role that the UMW officials had been playing in the struggle since the summer.

Since we ourselves had earlier fallen into some of the errors that the October League now wants to raise to the level of political principle, let’s look at what the Draft Programme has to say about trade unions today: “Trade unions in the U.S. today are controlled at the very top by scabs and traitors. Some of these rely on open gangster methods to attack workers’ struggles. Others put up a ’progressive’ and ’democratic’ front, while knifing the workers in the back. Some are associated with out-front reactionaries in the ruling class, while others are salesmen for the ’liberal’ imperialists and piously promote these imperialists–as well as themselves–as ’saviors’ of the working class. They are all agents of the bourgeoisie within the workers’ movement...The trade unions in this country, especially the powerful industrial unions, were not built by these bloated toads, but by the struggle and sacrifice of millions of workers. In the face of the mighty upsurge of the ’30s the capitalists, unable to smash the drive for industrial unions, made concessions–and prepared to take them back.”

Applying Analysis to UMW

We have to apply this same analysis to the UMW and in particular to the so-called “reform” or “progressive” officials like Arnold Miller. What does this mean? First of all, it means that all the trade unions today are in the hands of the bourgeoisie, through their agents.

The view of the communists towards the “progressive unionism” movement that Arnold Miller is connected with, is that what is really progressive about this movement is not some individuals who rode into office (no matter how “honest” some of them may be), but the militancy and action of the thousands and thousands of the rank and file miners. We tactically unite with Miller and individuals like him, where and when we can. The view of our organization was to provide “critical support” to the reform candidates. But what the Draft Programme says about the trade unions having been built by the rank and file and not by bloated toads, is also true of the reform movement in the UMW–it was not Arnold Miller and his gang of bloated pollywogs that built this mass movement within the union, but the rank and file itself.

If, “in the face of the mighty upsurge” the capitalists were “unable to smash the drive” for union democracy and reform in the UMW, they made concessions (in the form of providing for new elections, etc.) but at the same time prepared to take them back. This will continue to be true–until the workers’ movement breaks out of the limitations of the fight for concessions and reforms under capitalism.

What is our view of this? It is to unite with the rank and file in their struggles, but to bring to them our own understanding of the nature of the trade union officials today, and expose them as it becomes possible in the course of the day to day struggles of the masses.

What we did at the beginning of the coal campaign that was correct (whether or not we were conscious of it) was to unite with the mass sentiment among the rank and file about the issue of the coal imports. By building on this and taking it to the UMW officials in the form of proposing a mass demonstration around the coal imports we were able to jam the bureaucrats: they were caught between the mass sentiments of their own rank and file which were running high, and our concrete proposal for actions that the masses wanted to take up. In that situation they were forced to call out the rank and file to the May 22 demonstration. And at that point we were able to maintain some independent role–with our own propaganda, picket signs, and speakers.

But immediately after this the UMW officials began backsliding. Was our role then to continue to try to reach the rank and file “through the union officials,” when they were running from the issue as fast as they could? Or was our duty to go to the rank and file themselves, who had already taken up the issue, and unite with the progressive and revolutionary aspects of their consciousness (the rudiments of class solidarity with the struggle in South Africa) to combat the backward baggage of “protectionism” that some of them carried? In addition, shouldn’t we have gone out broadly to other sections of the working class and begun to unite the class as a whole around the issue?

Expose Traitors and Roll Over Them

The Draft Programme says: “As an important part of its overall struggle, the working class will fight to organize unions, to unite the masses of workers in unions in the common battle against the capitalist exploiters, to make unions militant organizations of class struggle, and to replace agents of the bourgeoisie with true representatives of the proletariat in union off ice...But the working class and its party cannot base its strategy on ’taking over’ the unions by electing new leadership and it cannot restrict its struggle to the limits set by the trade unions at any given time, (emphasis ours) The policy of the proletariat and its party is to build its strength in the unions as part of building its revolutionary movement–Mobilize the rank and file around a program representing its interests and in doing so “jam” the union officials–expose the traitors at the top and roll over them, break the union bureaucracies’ stranglehold on the workers, and unite with those on the lower levels of union leadership who can be won to stand with the working class–this is the policy of the proletariat and its party in the unions.”

We had an opportunity to begin to do just that. But we failed to expose the traitors at the top when it became both possible and necessary, and to roll on over them by developing our own methods of reaching the workers. We allowed ourselves to be “restricted by the limits set by the trade unions” and were unable to break the bureaucrats’ stranglehold on the workers and develop the struggle into a class struggle.

The correct policy towards the top union officials is to work from the bottom–to go deeply among the rank and file and build a revolutionary workers’ movement that presents the question clearly to those in union office: which side are you on? There are only two sides: ours and the enemy’s. During the course of the coal campaign a leading member of the October League said that “the United Mine Workers union is objectively anti-imperialist.” This view and the view that we need to “move the unions to the left” and rely on “progressive” officials to reach the rank and file, really views the rank and file as a pressure group that we apply to the officials to get them to unite with us-the “communists.”

This view says that the most important question is “Who will unite with us?” and not “How can we unite with the working class and build the proletariat’s leadership of all the struggles of its other allies?” This is a wrong petty bourgeois view that shows that those who hold it care more about their own position in the course of the struggle, than they do about the masses and making revolution.

This was clear in the October League’s proposal at the Coal Conference: “Cooperation with the union officials, where it can be reached, increases our ability to reach the rank-and-file. At the same time, the strength of the coalition in general and our links with and support from the rank-and-file in particular, has an important affect on our ability to get cooperation from officials.”

Tactics and Strategy

The OL makes it sound as if “cooperation with union officials” and “strength of our coalition” or the mass movement in general, are two sides of the same coin. They’re not. Cooperation with union officials is a tactical question. Building the strength of our organizations and of the mass movement and the rank and file is a strategic question.

Only the masses of workers and other oppressed people can make revolution. Only by relying on them can we be successful in guiding forward the struggles to the goal of proletarian revolution and socialism. If we can get some help along the way from “cooperative officials,” that’s fine. But it is certainly wrong to view “cooperation from the officials” and “cooperation” from the rank and file as equally important.

The union bureaucrats may be jammed at times into taking progressive stands on any one of a variety of issues. But the only way that the top offices of the unions can be more than fronts for the bourgeoisie that wear “liberal,” “progressive” or “reactionary” masks, will be as the proletariat and its party build a mass revolutionary movement that, as one of its tasks, sweeps all the agents out of the unions and replaces them with true representatives of the proletariat.

In the meantime, our job is not to build “mass” pressure groups to get this or that union official to take a somewhat progressive stance on this or that issue. Our job is to build the struggle, consciousness and revolutionary unity of the working class and to unite a broad anti-imperialist united front under working class leadership, that can make proletarian revolution in the U.S., establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and begin to build socialism.

Within this overall struggle, the party’s task of work in the trade unions is important, and the lessons we sum up now can help to lead the masses of workers to take the unions out of the hands of the bourgeoisie, and make them “militant organizations of class struggle.”